Pulling the plug: Study shows limited consumer interest in electric cars

2013 BMW ActiveE front three-quarter motionElectric vehicles or EVs offer zero-emission motoring, but is that enough to make people want to buy them? A new study from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs says no. The study indicates that overall consumer interest in electric cars is low, and that it varies depending on region.

Researchers surveyed 2,300 adult drivers in 21 U.S. cities during the fall of 2011. Respondents were asked to rate their interest in buying an electric car on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the highest. The average score was 2.67.

“Although many engineers, environmentalists and politicians are enthusiastic about electric vehicle technology, this survey reveals that new car buyers, based on early impressions, have little interest in purchasing plug-in vehicles,” John D. Graham, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a co-author of the study, said.

The people actually buying EVs fit into a fairly stereotypical profile. They tend to be male, highly educated, concerned about the environment and the United States’ dependence on foreign oil, and were likely to have owned a hybrid, the study says.

“Those interested in electric vehicles at this time are attracted to the environmental imaging associated with electric vehicles and are typically technology pioneers,” Sanya Carley, assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and lead author of the study.

The authors believe “range anxiety,” stemming from EV’s short driving ranges and long charging times, is the main reason consumers aren’t going electric. They note that survey respondents were more interested in hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

CODA Sedan“Policy makers also need to develop more realistic expectations about the pace of market acceptance of plug-in technology,” Graham said, “and they may need to retain policy incentives for plug-in vehicle purchases longer than they originally anticipated would be necessary.”

That has crossed the minds of some in Washington: Last May, the Obama administration proposed increasing the federal tax credit for EVs from $7,500 to $10,000, and making it available at the point of sale rather than on a tax return.

There is a silver lining for carmakers: the study showed more interest in EVs in specific cities, and the authors say this data could help carmakers better focus marketing of EVs.

San Jose and San Francisco showed the most EV interest, with a combined score of 3.72. Indianapolis and San Antonio were tied for the lowest score of 2.21.

Carmakers are already using the targeted marketing strategy suggested by Carley and Graham. EV pilot programs run by companies like Audi and BMW involve leasing a small number of cars to consumers in metropolitan areas, particularly in California.

Toyota and Coda have also limited sales of the RAV4 EV and Coda sedan, respectively, to California, at least initially, based on likely demand.